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Is Guru a Four-Letter Word?: The Need for Discernment on the Spiritual Path

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The can of worms is open. Opening up the question on my last blog of "How To Find a Spiritual Teacher," or whether we need a teacher at all, tends to incite even the most dormant of creatures. We have strong reactions, powerful opinions and oftentimes righteous convictions regarding this topic, as was seen from the many and varied, but never lukewarm responses to my last post. In fact, when I toured an early version of my book in 2002, there were two uprisings in bookstores where I spoke -- one in Manhattan and the other in Barcelona. In both cases, the movement was to incite the crowd to see that spiritual authority comes from within! I have absolutely no problem with this approach, nor with those who deeply feel the need for a teacher, or those who are confused, but why so much energy?

Is Guru a 4-Letter Word?

I have spent time with gurus who are living proof that "guru" can be a four-letter word. Nobody has asked me to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, but I have been offered plenty of other substances. And most of the other crimes of power and passion one hears about in relation to purported gurus have been perpetrated upon me and people I know. After 17 years of experience on four continents and 10 years of research in the field, I am both personally and professionally all too familiar with the kinds of shocking abuses of power that have been committed in the name of spirituality. Yet I cannot denounce spiritual teachers in general, any more than I can denounce all men simply because I have had some less than desirable lovers.

I have learned that when one writes or speaks publicly on this topic, four potential positions can be expected: 1) The strong assertion that the guru and the source of all spiritual authority comes from within, and that people who seek from without are essentially deluded. This group speaks the loudest and the strongest, usually with a slight edge of disdain towards those who have or want teachers; 2) The people who have a particular guru and not only think that the Guru Road is the only destination in town, but more specifically that their guru's home is the center of the universe. They want the world to join their guru's mission because they sincerely believe that the world would be a better place if this was so; 3) One step down from this are those who believe that we need a teacher, but that it need not be their teacher. This group is less likely to proselytize their perspective; 4) Those who are either questioning whether they need a teacher, or are looking for a teacher but cannot locate one -- this group is humble, open, curious. If we look at the responses to my previous blog, we see all of these perspectives represented with their predicted intensity.

Not Always So
If there is anything I have learned over 20 years of study, practice and research on the spiritual path, it is the truth of the teaching propagated by Zen master Shunru Suzuki of "not always so." There is not one clear-cut road of beliefs and practices to suit all human beings. There are well-trodden paths and religions that have proven to be helpful to many people in indescribable and irreplaceable ways. Yet whether we practice in one of these traditions or find our unique path through the labyrinth of life, we each walk the path differently, in a way that only the inimitability of each of our beings can do -- our "unique self."

I now understand that there are as many unique paths to spiritual unfolding as there are human beings. I remember when Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, my Sufi "uncle," and Huff Po blogger, told me this. I was a die hard seeker in my twenties. Although in theory it made sense, inside I secretly believed, "But my path is the best path, or at least one of the very best, and there is a best way to follow my path." Now, almost two decades later, it is clear to me that each human being follows a unique trajectory in relationship to spirit, truth or God.

The Need for Discernment on the Spiritual Path
Spiritual discernment, called viveka khyātir in Sanskrit, is said to be the "crowning wisdom" on the spiritual path.

The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali say that the cultivation of discernment is so powerful that it has the capacity to destroy ignorance and address the very source of suffering. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, to discern is "to recognize or identify as separate and distinct." Discrimination, its synonym, "stresses the power to distinguish and select what is true or appropriate or excellent." Those who possess spiritual discernment have learned this skill in relationship to spiritual matters, and they can consistently make intelligent, balanced and excellent choices in their lives and in relationship to their spiritual development. Their eyes are wide open and they see clearly.

Viveka khyātir is believed to be such a powerful tool that it has the capacity to pierce all levels of the physical, psychological, energetic and subtle bodies of the human being. In "Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali," B. K. S. Iyengar explains that through this unbroken flow of discriminating awareness, the spiritual practitioner "conquers his body, controls his energy, retrains the movements of the mind, and develops sound judgment, from which he acts rightly and becomes luminous. From this luminosity he develops total awareness of the very core of his being, achieves supreme knowledge and surrenders his self to the Supreme Soul."

I believe that more potent than any of our current spiritual convictions -- which if we observe closely and honestly within ourselves over many years, we discover, do in fact change no matter how certain we were of what we believed -- is the capacity for discernment. The degree to which our discernment is refined is the extent to which we can move through the complexities of the spiritual marketplace and the deepening of spiritual life with effectiveness and wisdom. We make radiant choices that serve others in smaller and larger ways, and become part of the evolutionary and healing force in life, instead of what George Bernard Shaw calls, "a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making me happy."